Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder
June 1, 2014, Easter VII – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
From the Acts of the Apostles:
Behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
From St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:
According to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places…
And from the Gospel of St. Luke:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
Today is Ascension Sunday. The Feast of Ascension commemorates the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter.
Have you ever asked the question, why did Jesus leave when He did? He’d only been at His mission for about three years. He’d struggled to gather a nucleus of followers despite much opposition and ignorance. He’d gone through hell on a cross, dying, but then rising from the dead. And now when His resurrection from the dead had just provided the impetus for things to really get going; He decides to leave. Why would Jesus ascend into heaven? Was He fed up with the people of this world? Did He want to escape? Perhaps He wanted some time off – a vacation? What good could possibly come out of Jesus leaving this world and leaving His disciples to fend for themselves?
Did He actually leave? And did He actually leave His disciples to fend for themselves?
After Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus remained on earth for forty days and ministered to His disciples. He had already opened their minds to understand the Old Testament message about Himself (Luke 24:44-48), but there were other lessons they needed to learn before they could launch out in their new ministry. Jesus appeared and disappeared during those forty days, and the believers never knew when He might show up. It was excellent preparation for the church because the days were soon coming when He would no longer be on earth to instruct them personally.
Let’s deal with why He left. The fact is, Jesus had done everything He came to do; As He said on the cross: “It is finished!” Shortly before His ascension Jesus said to His disciples: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms..This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)
He had completed His mission! He fulfilled the Scriptures. He did exactly what He said He would do, exactly what had to be done. He did what only God could have done. And when He was done He left. He didn’t hang around to clean up a few loose ends – there was no more for Him to do. Every sin had been paid for. The depths of the riches of love in the gracious heart of God had been revealed, and the door of the grave kicked open. So He ascended into heaven. And He was gone.
As believers, we know that He died and rose again. Eternal life and forgiveness of sins are very important. But every once in awhile, we ask the question, why does God allow bad things to happen in this world? That’s just like us, isn’t it? We look at things from a human perspective.
We read this morning in the book of Acts, Luke’s other Ascension account, when His disciples asked Jesus the question: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” This reveals an earthbound mindset; A self-centered worldview. They were still holding out for the conquering Savior who was going to rid them of the Romans and go back to the good old days when the Jews ruled.
We were born this way, with an inherited sinful nature. And we will die with that sinful nature still clinging to us. But we do not need die forever, apart from God. By the grace of our heavenly Father, through total victory gained by Jesus through His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, we have been set free. The Holy Spirit has torn away the trappings of sin and wrapped us in the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness. Daily, through Word and Sacrament He leads us to repent of sin and cling to Christ.
Christ left this world 40 days after His resurrection. The disciples saw Him leave with their own eyes. Here’s where the facts of Ascension, the doctrine of Ascension matters in our lives right now. He is gone, but not really. He is gone…but here more than ever. He is with us even more powerfully than if He could be seen with our eyes. We live in the presence of our ascended, ever-present, all-powerful Lord.
He is in control, in charge, working everything out for our good – everyone of us – wherever we are, wherever we go. There is no place we can go where Christ will not also be. There is no situation so complex or desperate of helplessness that Christ can’t work it out into something that benefits us. Ascension means we have His power, His presence, and His promise.
Ascension matters because it offers so much assurance in a world devoid of certainty and safety. Ascension means that Christ will come again. That was the message of the angels in Luke’s other ascension account in Acts 1: “This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Just before Jesus ascended He gave His disciples a mission and responsibility. In Acts we read, “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” And in our Gospel reading: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
His disciples were to be witnesses of all that He had said and done. A witness is somebody who sincerely tells what he has seen and heard. As Christians, we also have a responsibility to be witnesses who point to Jesus Christ and tell lost sinners how to be saved. It doesn’t matter if you are pupil, plumber, preacher, police officer or pool cleaner, we all have the same ultimate purpose – to glorify God in all we think, say, and do and be witnesses where we live, work and play.
How could a group of common people ever hope to fulfill that kind of commission? God promised to provide the power (Luke 24:19; Acts 1:8), and He did. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the church and empowered them to preach the Word (Acts 2). After Pentecost, the Spirit continued to fill them with great power.
Witnessing is not something that we do for the Lord; it is something that He does through us, if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. There is a difference between a “sales talk” and a Spirit-empowered witness. We go forth in the authority of His name, in the power of His spirit, heralding His Gospel of His grace.
For some reason, our Lord’s ascension is not given the prominence in the church that it deserves. Think of what it meant to Jesus to return to heaven and sit on the throne of glory! His ascension is proof that He has conquered every enemy and that He reigns supremely “far above all” (Eph. 1:18-23).
Our Lord’s ascension into heaven was an important part of His ministry, for if He had not returned to the Father, He could not have sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:5-15). Also, in heaven today, the Saviour is our interceding High Priest, giving us the grace that we need for life and service (Heb. 4:14-16). He is also our Advocate before the Father, forgiving us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9-2:2). The exalted and glorified Head of the church is now working with His people on earth and helping them accomplish His purposes (Mark 16:19-20).
Of course, He is also preparing in heaven a home for His people (John 14:1-6), and one day He will return and take us to be with Him forever.
The last thing our Lord did was to bless His people, and the first thing they did was to worship Him! The two always go together, for as we truly worship Him, he will share His blessings. He not only opened their lips to witness, but He also opened their lips to worship and praise Him!
Dr. Luke opened his Gospel with a scene in the temple (Luke 1:8ff), and he closed his Gospel the same way (Luke 24:53). But what a contrast between the unbelieving, silent priest and the trusting, joyful saints! But Luke’s witness doesn’t end in Jerusalem. He continues his witness in his next book, The Acts of the Apostles, where the Gospel traveled from Jerusalem to Rome!
We need to grasp the reality and impact of Christ’s constant presence with us. Even more than that, Jesus wants an ongoing relationship with us. Matthew records these words in his ascension account: “I am with you always to the very end of the age”…to the end of time. Isn’t it ironic that with all of our communication resources today – internet, email¸ cell phones, text messaging – those very things may be keeping us apart from God. Making a phone call or sending a dozen tweets, two dozen emails, or 100 text messages a day does not make for a complete, fulfilling relationship.
A fulfilling relationship needs time, commitment, sacrifice – all of which Jesus offers. Jesus is here, here with you, always. You have the promise of His presence, actually the reality that He is always with you. And what is our part in this relationship? He gives us His Word so that we can keep in touch, to remain close to Him. Use it, study it, and pray over it. Cling to it. He may be gone from our eyes, but He is with us more than ever.
In the aftermath of the Ascension, notice what the disciples did. They didn’t mope around and act depressed because Jesus was no longer physically, visually with them. “They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” We need to do the same – worshipping, praising, witnessing at the temple or church, at home, at work – everywhere, all the time, knowing that Jesus is with us wherever we go, wherever we are. He may be gone, but not really. He is here with us more than ever. And soon, we will be there with Him – in heaven, that is, face to face.
Until then, seek Him in His Word, Body and Blood. Cling to His promises. And live each day as those disciples did, with “great joy.” Proclaiming His victory!
Let us pray:
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven; Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. †